Bubbaland

Sign that lease in Mesquite at your extreme peril

You're a photo buff. You like to walk around your neighborhood playing with your new digital camera. Some bubba in coveralls with a handgun in his pocket runs out of his house yelling at you that you "could get your ass shot" if you take any more pictures. So you call 911, the police come, and they investigate Mr. Bubba, right?

Not in Mesquite, Texas. In Mesquite, Mr. Bubba calls the police. Bubba tells 'em you been out there takin' pitchers without his permission. The police look for you for two days. Finally, after much Sherlocking, they sleuth you down and find you standing on your front lawn. Next thing you know, you're all bloodied up and looking out from bars in the Mesquite slam.

See, in Mesquite the cops are bubbas. If you ain't no bubba, you're in trubba.

You would have the same legal recourse that Ryan Johnson has once Mesquite law enforcement gets done working him over. And you probably would need to think about doing what he's going to do.

Move to Austin.

But let me cut to the chase a little bit here, before I tell you the whole incredible story of Johnson's photography bust two weeks ago in beautiful Mesquite, our rodeo-lovin', goat-ropin' suburban neighbor to the southeast. For all I know, you might be on the verge of closing on that cool house with a pool in Mesquite, or maybe you're about to sign a 12-month lease on a neat apartment there. Mesquite does offer some amazing deals in the newer parts of town. But you need to know a few things about Mesquite police policy.

According to Sergeant Shannon Greenhaw, the official spokeswoman for the Mesquite PD, the police in Mesquite have the right to stop you and frisk you whether or not they have any reason to think you've done anything or might be about to do anything criminal. All you have to do is be "suspicious." And you are suspicious because Bubba down the street says you're suspicious.

I asked her eight ways to Sunday when and under what circumstances a citizen is subject to arrest and search in Mesquite. She said it was "at the moment of contact with an officer."

And whammo. Ryan Johnson is eating turf on his own front lawn with three cop cars in front of his house, cuffs on his wrists, knees bloody, pepper spray canister jammed up his nose with the cops yelling at him to stop having a panic attack or they'll nuke him.

This version of the story, which I got from Johnson and his partner, is substantially corroborated by what Sergeant Greenhaw told me on the phone, even though the Mesquite PD refuses to release the full arrest report until the end of the 10-day period allowed by the state Open Records Act.

Also before going too much further with this, I need to concede a few points. Johnson is a gentle giant, a large man who works at home as an engineer. He says he is terrified of confrontation and has always been subject to panic attacks, which cause him to more or less faint. He says he fainted when police demanded to search him for evidence of alleged photographic activities. Apparently the Mesquite cops are interpreting his slumping to the ground as "resisting search."

Johnson has provided me with a number of statements from people who know him attesting to his history of panic attacks. The Dallas Observer checked out his Texas criminal history. He has none. He also gave me statements from photo and art galleries affirming his genuine interest in photography.

But when Ryan Johnson aroused the suspicion of his neighbors, he was not taking pictures of bushes or birds. He was taking pictures of security cameras on a house two blocks from his own home in a neighborhood of small middle-class ranch homes built in the early 1970s. He told me he was surprised to see a house so near his own with six or seven security cameras protruding from the eaves and wanted to take pictures to show to Marlee Stewart, the woman he lives with.

Maybe taking pictures of someone else's security cameras is odd. His story resonated with me, because I walk around my own neighborhood taking pictures, including pictures in the alleys, and sometimes, frankly, of security stuff. If he's odd, I'm odd. But as far as I know, you can still be at least a tad odd in America without getting slammed into the back of a squad car for it.

I don't know exactly which bubba called the cops on Johnson, and I'm not sure it's any of my business. At least two different bubbas confronted Johnson at different times about his picture-taking in the days before the Mesquite cops jumped him. People, including bubbas, do have the right to call the police.

I sat down in the kitchen and had a nice long chat with the bubba gentleman who first accosted Johnson on the street to tell him he didn't want him taking any more pictures on his block. Ellis Starns is a retiree in his 60s who wears denim coveralls and a denim shirt. I mention these sartorial details, because Starns is a student of other people's attire.

In our chat, we very quickly came to what I thought was sort of an embarrassing bone of contention. I'm not even sure how to approach it here. I believe it has to do with "suspiciousness" in Mesquite.

Ahem. Well...in order to get this point across, I am forced to provide another detail I might not otherwise have shared with you: Ryan Johnson is white. I mean, he's really white. He's like me. He's too white. In the winter, people probably ask him what they ask me: "Have you not been feeling well?"

So here we are at the kitchen table, and Starns is describing his encounter with Johnson over the picture-taking.

"His hair is black, down to his collar," Starns says. "He's got skin like an Iranian or one of them sand junkies over there."

I say no, Johnson is white.

He disagrees. "The guy that was taking pictures, I confronted him. This was a guy about six foot or over, probably went 200 pounds, had bushy, curly hair down on his shoulders. His skin was dark like an Iranian. This wasn't no white guy. This guy wasn't white at all."

Well...shoot. We establish more details. We are definitely talking about the same guy. I stumble and bumble. "I was sitting in his [Johnson's] house," I say. "It was dark in there. Maybe...I don't know. He looked like a white guy to me."

Starns corrects me again. "Me and you's white," he says. "He looked like an Iranian to me. He was out wearing...and this don't mean crap, because people wear all kind of crap--but he had on a hat deal that's got one of them bands around it and ain't nothing but a bib, and a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and tennis shoes."

An Iranian in suspicious garb.

Starns explains to me that in addition to taking pictures Johnson was behaving suspiciously, because he was just walking around. Starns says Johnson told him where he lived and pointed in that direction, but then he departed walking in the opposite direction.

An Iranian in suspicious garb out walking around.

I tell Starns that, being in the news business all my life, I am dead certain it is not against the law to take pictures in a public place, and that the street and your front yard are definitely public.

He says I am wrong--potentially dead wrong. "I disagree," he says. "I disagree, because he could get his ass shot over here foolin' around. I do not agree with anybody out taking pictures without permission from the owner. That's the way I feel about it."

He explains to me that when he confronted Johnson, Starns was armed. "When I'm out and about on these streets or anywhere else pretty much, I carry a handgun. I carry a concealed handgun. I got a license to do that."

He adds that I, too, had been in a position of risk merely by pulling up in front of his house. "I was kind of suspicious about you," he says. "I saw you pull up, and you sat out there in your car for a while. I thought, 'Well, where is this turkey going?' When you come in here, I told the wife, 'What in the world does this guy want?'"

Yeah. Good question. And why, if I was going to go to all this trouble all these years getting my foot in people's doors, did I not at least try to sell them some toilet bowl brushes?

The Mesquite police tell me they were called by someone in the neighborhood who complained that Johnson was involved in a "suspicious activity." In the part of the police report I was able to obtain, no complainant is named.

Both Johnson and the police say that the police officers who confronted him two days later on his lawn ordered him to submit to a search. Johnson told them they needed grounds. The police seized him. He panicked and plunged to the ground. They loaded him up and took him to jail. He is charged with "resisting arrest, search or transport," a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and a year in jail.

Johnson says that when he asked on what grounds he was to be searched, the police said, "The camera." But he had no camera with him when they stopped him.

I don't have any independent knowledge of what the police said. The one officer I did reach declined to speak to me. The department wouldn't release the "narrative" portion of the arrest report, even though that document is legally an open record. The Mesquite PD indicated I would receive the narrative later this week, at the last possible date they are required by state law to give it up.

With some time to think about it, the Mesquite PD now is saying the arrest had nothing to do with Johnson's picture-taking. Lieutenant Bill Artesi told me Johnson's problems had entirely to do with resisting search.

Lawyers tell me there is bad news and good news for Johnson on that issue. The bad news is that the courts in recent years have expanded the ability of police to do a so-called "Kerry frisk" (named for a court ruling) in order to protect themselves from suspicious persons who could be armed.

The good news for Johnson is that the police still have to have some coherent, fairly specific reason to believe the person they have detained has just committed a crime or is about to. The activity the neighbor or neighbors had complained of took place two days before the police detained Johnson on his own property.

David Davis, the lawyer who successfully represented Donato Garcia against the Dallas Police Department in a bogus arrest case, listened to my description of the Johnson case and then raised these questions: "What crime would he be committing if he's on his own lawn? A report made to the police is not a criminal offense. Taking photographs is not a crime. The question is, what was the basis? They have a right to detain him and ask him questions. But he has the right to not only refuse but to leave, because they have no reason to be suspicious."

Davis cautioned that it's never OK under any circumstances to fight with the police. Even if the arrest itself is wrong, you still don't have the right to fight, unless the police are using excessive force and you believe you are struggling for your life.

Johnson says he did what he always does when he has a panic attack. "First the knees go, and I get this tunnel vision, and then I just slowly go down."

If the police want to, they can go to court and say they were searching Johnson for their own protection and that he pretended to faint in order to resist their search. He can present evidence that he suffers panic attacks and was not resisting deliberately. Even if he gets off, the city will have cost him $5,000 to $10,000 for a lawyer.

This is a soft-spoken engineer who works at home, goes to galleries on the weekends, loves to take pictures and has an odd attraction to security cameras. He was unable to sleep during the week after his arrest, lost 20 pounds and says, "My life has been torn apart."

Because? Because by Mesquite community standards, he is a dark-skinned Iranian sand junkie in odd clothes out walking around. And taking pictures! For which he should have his ass shot.

And the Mesquite police wholeheartedly agree.

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